News and Tribune

March 30, 2014

Despite shortfall, court orders claims to be paid in Clark County or face contempt charge

Sheriff’s mandate means auditor must pay unfunded claims

By MATT KOESTERS
matt.koesters@newsandtribune.com

CLARK COUNTY — Clark County Circuit Court No. 4 Judge Vicki Carmichael has ordered that all county claims be paid, even those that are paid from funds with negative balances.

The order is part of a preliminary injunction and order for mediation written March 3 by Carmichael as part of Sheriff Danny Rodden’s lawsuit against the Clark County Council for up to $6 million in judgment bonds to operate his department and the county jail. The county council zeroed out the budgets for the two departments in anticipation of mediation resulting in mandated tax rates outside of the county’s general fund levy to pay for the bonds.

The order requires Auditor R. Monty Snelling “to pay all county claims and all county payrolls, even though the county general fund, or any other county fund ... may have a negative balance ... in anticipation of a judgment being granted by this court against the county and in anticipation of judgment funding bonds” being issued.

Snelling said he’ll abide by the order, as the consequence of not obeying would be a charge of contempt of court.

“To me, it doesn’t say the sheriff and the jail — it says any and all county claims,” Snelling said. “So I’m responsible to pay them no matter what.”

Snelling said that while the order is in effect, he will be monitoring claims to ensure no inappropriate claims are paid, and will consult with Carmichael when he encounters one.

“The important thing people need to understand is, there’s a budget out there for every department, as far as how much appropriations they have for the year,” Snelling said. “As long as they stay within their appropriation, they’ll be OK.”

County commissioners from both sides of the aisle expressed dismay over the order, as it is the commissioners who are normally responsible for authorizing the payment of claims.

“It is kind of frustrating,” Commissioners President Jack Coffman, a Republican said. “But I understand too, being a commissioner, that when bills come in, they’ve got to be paid.”

Snelling called Rodden’s request for a mandate for funds “100 percent appropriate,” but Coffman expressed concern that bills are being ordered paid in anticipation of a mandate that has not been issued.

“It is a gamble. You’re taking a chance,” Coffman said. “And also, that might be leverage that’s used to get the mandate passed.”

Commissioner John Perkins, a Democrat, echoed Coffman’s concerns and called the order “troubling.”

“It’s like saying, ‘You can go ahead and pay the bills,’” Perkins said. “‘You don’t have the money, but we think you’re going to get the money.’”

Carmichael declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing nature of the pending litigation.

Clark County has used mandated tax rates to supplement the county’s budget in two of the last three years. In 2011, the sheriff’s department and the courts accounted for $3.2 million in mandates combined. In 2013, the sheriff’s department won a judgment for $2.855 million.

A $6 million mandated tax rate would mean a cost of about $150 per $100,000 assessed valuation for properties that have not reached their respective circuit breaker tax caps.

Clark and Lake counties are the only two of Indiana’s 92 counties to issue mandates in recent years, according to the Department of Local Government Finance.